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6/25/2008
01:30 PM
John Foley
John Foley
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Bill Gates Revealed: A Few Things You Didn't Know

I've had occasion to chat with Bill Gates a number of times over the years, and there's often a point when something unexpected happens. He's been brutally honest, occasionally evasive, and surreptitiously a nice guy. As Gates gets ready to ride off into the software sunset, here are a few anecdotes that stand out.

I've had occasion to chat with Bill Gates a number of times over the years, and there's often a point when something unexpected happens. He's been brutally honest, occasionally evasive, and surreptitiously a nice guy. As Gates gets ready to ride off into the software sunset, here are a few anecdotes that stand out.Bill Gates is retiring five years earlier than planned. It's an obscure fact, but true. Back in August of 2003, in a luncheon speech at the Detroit Economic Club, Gates said he had "a little more than 10 years" left in his software "career." The math is simple -- that would be 2013. A mere three years after that speech, however, Gates surprised the business world with his announcement of a 2008 retirement, five years earlier than indicated. New York Times reporter John Markoff caught this discrepancy. It was the first question out of Markoff's mouth at Gates' retirement news conference, but Gates said he didn't recall his earlier statement, and the subject was dropped. See my blog, "Bill Gates Waves Goodbye Earlier Than Planned," for all the details.

Bill Gates and Scott McNealy weren't really archenemies. In January of 1996, I was on Sun's campus for a day of interviews. This was at the height of the Sun v. Microsoft wars, and speculation was that Sun was negotiating to acquire Apple. McNealy, however, was relaxed and eating frozen yogurt during our interview. His first son, Maverick, had been born a few months earlier, and McNealy excitedly went to a corner of his office to show me something. It was a handwritten note from Bill Gates congratulating him on the new arrival.

Bill Gates dodged only one question. In 2003, IT departments were spending hours patching buggy Windows PCs. One CIO I know crunched the numbers and said he was going to bill Microsoft for the work put in by his staff. So I asked Gates whether other business customers were making their own demands for reimbursement. "Is this something you're talking to business customers about -- somehow taking some of the financial responsibility for the work they're having to do?" After a very long pause, Gates answered: "We're very focused on doing our best to avoid these problems. That's our focus." It's the only time he completely sidestepped a question during one of our interviews.

Bill Gates has a calculator in his head. OK, so that's not a revelation, but I saw it in action when Gates walked me through the evolution from 16-bit to 32-bit to 64-bit computing. The occasion was the launch of 64-bit Windows, and Gates was walking me through the advances in microprocessor design over the years. He started with the premise that the IT industry had been gobbling up about 1 bit of memory address space per year, resulting in a need for ever more address space. During the interview, Gates came to the realization that the industry was consuming address space at nearly double the rate of the past. For more on this, see "A Trip Down 'Memory Lane' With Bill Gates."

Bill Gates once gave his own software the lowest possible rating. In May of 2002, just a few weeks after Gates' famous memo on Trustworthy Computing, my colleague Chris Murphy and I interviewed Gates for more than an hour in New York. I mention the length of the interview to make the point that Gates can be generous with his time. It's usually the PR people who cut off an interview or try to keep the discussion "on topic." Gates himself tends to be freewheeling. Toward the end of the interview, we asked him to rate Microsoft's overall software quality on a scale of one to 10, where one was unsatisfactory and 10 was high satisfaction. His answer: "Is it as good as people want? One." It was a blunt self-assessment, and the right one at the time. For the full Q&A, see "Bill Gates On Trustworthy Computing."

Bill Gates drinks, or sips, double fisted. The scene was an invitation-only dinner for about 15 journalists in Las Vegas a few years ago. Jeff Raikes was the host of my table, and Gates was at the next table. After dinner they got up and switched tables in order to spend a little time with all the guests. Red and white wines had been served with dinner, and Gates carried a glass of each with him. Managing two drinks at once may be politically incorrect in some circles, but not in this one and not on this occasion. Windows Longhorn was in the throes of development. We all understood.

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